When Ronald Reagan Blew a Presidential Debate and Dropped Seven Points in the Polls

Perhaps one useful way of explaining the current Democratic panic, the most intense since the party’s August 2012 panic, is looking back at how other presidents have blown their first debates. And no incumbent president has fumbled the ball quite as magnificently as Ronald Reagan. I know what the post-debate polls say, and that Romney’s domination of Obama was the largest in history. But you need to watch Reagan’s 1984 sleepwalk against Walter Mondale. The closing statement might be enough to get the point across. In 1980, famously, Reagan closed his speech with a riff that would be plagiarized for years to come.

Next Tuesday is Election Day. Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.

In 1984, he closed with this.

Four years ago, in similar circumstances to this, I asked you, the American people, a question. I asked: “Are you better off than you were 4 years before?” The answer to that obviously was no, and as the result, I was elected to this office and promised a new beginning. Now, maybe I’m expected to ask that same question again. I’m not going to, because I think that all of you – or not everyone, those people that are in those pockets of poverty and haven’t caught up, they couldn’t answer the way I would want them to – but I think that most of the people in this country would say, yes, they are better off than they were 4 years ago. The question, I think, should be enlarged. Is America better off than it was 4 years ago? And I believe the answer to that has to also be “yes.” I promised a new beginning. So far, it is only a beginning. If the job were finished, I might have thought twice about seeking reelection for this job.

Seriously. Watch Reagan’s closing statement, which is objectively more of a ramble than anything Obama did on the Denver stage.

This was bad. Reagan knew it was bad. “As soon as he left the stage,” reports Lou Cannon in President Reagan, “Reagan confessed to [adviser Stu] Spencer that he had flopped.” According to Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, when Mondale left the stage, he confided to an aide that “This guy is gone” – as in mentally not all there. Two days after the debate, RNC Chairman Paul Laxalt held a press conference admitting that Reagan had blown it, but “it wasn’t because of any physical or mental deficiency… he was brutalized by a briefing process that didn’t make any sense.” Why mention mental deficiency? Because the “drive-by media” was covering the debate that way, bringing on mental health experts to ask what the hell happened to Reagan. A Newsweek/Gallup poll found 54 percent of debate-watchers giving the victory to Mondale, and only 35 percent to Reagan.

We know how Reagan came back. At the second debate, he unloaded a well-rehearsed zinger: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That effectively ended the “WTF is wrong with this guy” issue.

But I don’t think Obama can regain footing in quite the same way. There is no media-endorsed narrative for why Obama blew it. Conservatives say that the dummy with the teleprompter was exposed at last. The “drive-by media” suggests that Obama didn’t do enough prep. Obama’s started to joke about his stumble, but would anyone advise him to lead with a teleprompter joke? I sure wouldn’t.

And the bigger problem for Obama is spelled out by Cannon, in his book. Before the first debate, tracking polls gave Reagan an 18-point lead over Walter Mondale. By the time they met again, he had blown 7 points, and lead Mondale by only 11 points. Barack Obama has never had a margin that large over Mitt Romney, ever. He went into the debate with a 3-point lead. That’s why he has less space for a rebuild.